Saturday, March 12, 2011


Spring is really trying to happen here now.  A robin woke me up before dawn last week, singing its spring song, and I have since heard a few robins singing the same song morning and evening.  The elderberries are showing tiny green leaves at their branch-tips, the ornamental plums are blooming pink and white, the daffodils are starting.  But the weather is uncertain; turbulent winds and roaring surf one day, relentless pouring rain the next.  This being a weekend when I could have worked outside in the garden, it is, of course, a dreary, wet day.  Rain rattles in the downspouts and the western shore of the Salish Sea is hidden from me by fog.

My mood is a dreary, too.  I haven't wanted to come here for the past few weeks, because I didn't want to commit it to writing, but others have now, so.  J1 Ruffles is missing.  He hasn't been seen by any of the researchers since late November.  Jpod had split up, though, with J2 Granny and J8 Speiden (J1's frequent companions) off on their own somewhere and the rest of them cruising southern Puget Sound off and on, so I figured he was off with J2 and J8 and the others.  But now the others have rejoined the pod, and J1 has still not been seen.

The worst of it is, there's no way to know, not for months.  We don't know their ways.  L87 Onyx has been traveling with Jpod lately, which is a bit unusual.  Lpod has been spotted in Californian waters over the winter, which means L87's family is a long ways away; maybe J1 is with them?  The Ks came back for a little while over the winter and now are off doing whatever they do this time of year.  Until all three pods come back together in the summer, we can't know for sure if Ruffles is really gone or not.  But I noticed that the Whale Museum has taken him off their list of adoptable whales.

I can't give up hope, but I am preparing myself.  Ruffles is such an easily identified whale, he is a favorite of many, but I think he also had a way of creating connections with individual humans.  He is never shy of the boats, likes to come up close and take a good look, and give a good look to all the clamoring monkeys on board.  He has been, as I have mentioned before, a regular visitor in my dreams.  Late last October I dreamed of him; he had come into shallow water with the rest of the pod, and I was with a number of other people who were in the water interacting with the whales.  I felt very close to him, a deep friendship, a contentedness in each others' presence.  But I was left with an unsettled feeling when I woke, a feeling I tried to banish but that has grown since I watched the sighting reports over the winter months and noticed he was not among them.

At 60, Ruffles would be the oldest male in the SRKW population.  The next oldest male is many years his junior.  I attended a lecture last week about Conservation Canines and the work they have done with the SRKWs.  While there, I overheard a well known researcher saying that his last day out with Ruffles, following downwind, he could smell Ruffles' breath and it wasn't a healthy smell.  Not encouraging.  Still, I can hardly believe that Ruffles would fall when his own mother, J2 Granny, will be reaching 100 years old this year (give or take a few years; her birth year is an estimate).

Female orcas have a sad advantage over males in these days of toxic contamination of the ocean food chain:  they are able to offload some of their toxic body burden to their calves and the milk they feed them, but the males have no such escape valve.  Obviously, this fact is not a happy one in terms of the calves' health, and indeed probably contributes to their high mortality in the first year.  In Granny's case, though, she probably stopped reproducing before the worst of the contaminates entered the orcas' food stream, so her body burden is probably pretty high.  (This is conjecture; maybe the data actually exists somewhere because I know samples were taken from the SRKW in the past, but I don't know where I would find that information about specific individuals.)  In any case, it seems that Granny and Ruffles may be genetically predisposed to long life and some resistance to the toxins they have been faced with.

One of my sister naturalists did report that she thought she had seen Ruffles, traveling with Granny and Speiden about a mile ahead of the rest of Jpod, in late February.  She is someone who knows the whales on sight well, but she couldn't confirm it.  I know she is worried about him too.  A lot of people are--Ruffles even has his own Facebook page now, where some are already eulogizing him and others are expressing their hope that he will be returning soon.  I'm firmly in the second camp.  I won't let go of hope until a full year goes by with no sightings, which has been the traditional time that has to elapse before the researches declare a member of the SRKW presumed dead.

I will welcome the spring's returning, the calls of the brants flocking along the shore, the salmonberry blossoms bringing the rufous hummingbirds back.  I will find peace with my hands in the earth, preparing the garden for the season.  But my heart is heavy with worry for my dear friend.

Photo by R. Milke

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Patooties Return!

Stepping out late in the day to feed our chickens, I startled a Bewick's wren from our back porch.  I presume it was setting up housekeeping; if so, this will be the sixth year in a row we've had a Bewick's family nesting on or near the back porch.

Bewick's are cavity nesters, but also set up decoy nests to fool predators.  The first year we saw them here, they nested between two Coleman fuel canisters on a shelf by our back door.  Here's mom (or dad) on the nest:

And a few weeks later....

In one of the subsequent years, they built a fake nest in a large hollow tube on a windchime hanging near the porch.

They are sweet little birds, quite bold when they get used to you, and I will often see them out of the corner of my eye as they creep near while I'm gardening in the spring.  We've dubbed the wren family the "Cutie Patooties," and I am happy to know that Mr. and Ms. Patootie are joining us again this year!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Today's Distraction

I find that many of my wildlife sightings come from observing my fellow primates' behavior.  A small crowd gathered on the shore across the road from home this afternoon, pointing and staring at something I couldn't see but that was attracting a lot of seagulls.  I knew the SRKW had been spotted quite a ways north, but I had seen some Dall's porpoises earlier in the day and I was curious what might be causing all the fuss.  Heading over to inspect I discovered a sea lion (or several?) rolling and thrashing as they fed; the gulls were diving after scraps.  That makes four marine mammal species sightings in 24 hours (SRKW yesterday, a harbor seal spotted while watching them, and todays sightings), not bad for not being out on the boat.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nice Surprise

Well, it's been awfully busy around here.  Lots of deadlines to meet, not so much time to enjoy being outdoors or  write. But this afternoon turned out to include some unexpected down time, made even better by the appearance of part of Jpod traveling close to shore past the house.

It isn't usual for them to come in so close to the eastern shore of Puget Sound, but there they were.  I was able to follow them for the better part of an hour, along with a crowd of neighbors armed with binoculars and cameras.  When February came and the SRKW hadn't been spotted in my local waters for more than three months, I figured I was out of luck and would have to wait for summer and the San Juans to see them again.  Today was a lovely surprise.

Here's hoping life doesn't keep me too busy to be present here.  There's a lot to say, if I can find the time to get it down.

Friday, January 14, 2011

First Song of Spring

Even though it's only January, as I mentioned here, the signs of approaching spring start early in this part of the world.  This morning, despite the incessant blustery rain and wind we've been having for the past several days, I was thrilled to hear a song sparrow in a shrub on the sheltered north side of the house, testing his trills in what was undeniably a spring song.  What I heard this morning sounded more like the first of the two song recordings found here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Human, Nature

The subject of humans in nature (and nature in humans) is one I'd like to explore a bit in my next few posts.  I've been asked to give a guest sermon at a local Unitarian Universalist Church in early February.  This will be a new experience for me.  I have done many public education programs for work, and lead many ritual services for my own church, but actually standing at the pulpit will be a new box to check on my life list.  I'm planning to discuss the relationship between humans, spirit, and nature, specifically with regard to the Place of the Salish Sea ecosystem.  There's a lot to say, but I only have twenty minutes, so hopefully musing here will help me to pare down my thoughts into a coherent sermon.

Western thought has famously created an artificial separateness between humans and nature.  The idea that the body, our physical selves, reliant upon the products of the natural world to survive, is completely separate from the soul, the thinking part of the Self, goes back thousands of years, even before Descartes did such a good job of fleshing it out (if you'll forgive the pun).  When your religion, rulers and scholars keep perpetuating a message like that, either by words or deeds, pretty soon it starts to feel like it is an eternal truth, and like nothing was ever any different...and here we are in 2011, most of us still acting as though what happens to the earth has no bearing on what happens to our bodies, and that how our bodies relate to the earth has no bearing on what happens to our minds, our hearts, our souls.  Indeed, the average human being living in the United States today has no idea where their food or water come from, or where their waste goes.  North American school children today might be able to tell you the names of several different kinds of exotic endangered wildlife living on distant continents, but can't name a single plant or bird species they might see out their windows.  Some of them won't even see birds out their windows, living as they do in such highly urbanized environments that even the most adaptive, invasive species don't often show their faces there.

To our ancestors a few generations back Nature was merely uncivilized, unknown, unexplored, and dangerous.  In modern times we look at Nature through our television screens and see in the shows about wild weather, aggressive wildlife, and the perils faced by those who seek adventure beyond the suburbs that it is still dangerous, maybe even more than it was before.  As the news media bleats an endless stream of stories about weather and wildlife anomalies, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, we see that Nature is uncontrollable.  And above all, Nature is dirty--this last, perhaps, the greatest threat to modern humanity if the advertisements for anti-bacterial cleansers for every surface of your home and your own filthy body are to be believed.

In addition to reinforcing an artificial separateness between humans and nature, the Western world has for centuries viewed the relationship between humans and nature as adversarial.  Christianity, with its teachings that the body is inherently sinful and that all things earthly should be eschewed as much as possible in order to receive an intangible eternal reward in some disembodied Heaven, helped to widen the gap between humans and nature.  Living on earth, toiling through one's life with the physical discomforts of weather too hot or too cold, illness, the pains of childbearing and old age, these were the trials.  Suffer through them, and go to your reward.  There were no rewards in nature, unless you were a wicked heathen who enjoyed your food, sex, and other earthly pleasures.  Although we don't consciously articulate this idea in a lot of modern discourse about the human relationship with the natural world, it is still very much there, just beneath the surface, vividly coloring the way we consider our place in the web of life.

I don't feel the need to dwell to deeply on the physical impacts of this way of thinking.  It should be fairly obvious to anyone who is conscious in this time that the results of this Western attitude toward nature, combined with the imperialistic push that has spread this worldview to every corner of the planet, has not resulted in a harmonious relationship with nature.  Stories of environmental degradation and imbalance and the way it is finally making humans uncomfortable are everywhere in the news.  Some even embrace it, welcoming what they interpret as signs of an impending apocalypse because it means that intangible heavenly reward might come sooner.  Indeed, in the United States, recent administrations have even encouraged various types of environmental destruction as a means of hastening these "End Times".  But this pervasive believe of separateness has had a profound affect on our very souls--the souls Descartes and others claimed could exist independently of the body, and, therefore, the earth.

Why, then, do so many of us feel in our souls a sense of being incomplete, a yearning for something that speaks to us in a sunrise, a birdsong, the smell of rain-washed leaves?

Next:  pining for the fjords

Monday, January 3, 2011


I never seem to notice that the robins have gone until they come back.  This time of year they are spending a lot of time hanging out in the trees, like big orange fruit leftover from last fall.  A small group of them appeared in our yard on New Year's Day and have been passing through each morning since then.  It will be some week before we hear our first robin song of spring, though, announcing the time when they are beginning to nest.

Driving through Kenmore at twilight yesterday, just past the Hwy 522 and Hwy 405 interchange, the kids and I happened upon a tremendous flock of crows doing their pre-roosting aerobatics.  This is something I have seen crows do many times before, and have observed that it is something apparently triggered by the light levels at sunset, but never have I seen so many crows flocking at once.  A little research reveals that in the fall and winter, crows gather to roost in large numbers, undoubtedly what we were seeing.   There were easily thousands of them, filling the sky and swirling around, not behaving like a flock of starlings or a school of fish with synchronized turns but just milling about in the sky.  We pulled to the side of the highway to watch for a while, and even over the roar of traffic we could hear the cacophony of their calls.  It was spectacular, but also little eerie...anyone else who has ever seen The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock would have had a shiver down their back, too.

We're in the midst of another cold snap here, hard frosts in the morning and inches of ice on top of the rain barrels.  I even heard that all of the inner harbour in Victoria, BC, was iced over on New Year's Eve, a highly unusual thing. The cold weather is beautiful, offering crystal clear views of the snowy Olympics and Cascades against a perfect blue sky.  The sun doesn't offer much warmth, but at least it's shining.  A local news outlet reported that it rained here on every holiday last year, which is really only true if you celebrate the holidays they were looking at, but does indicate that our skies last year were not as sunny as they sometimes are, and that makes the sun all the more welcome now.